Alcatraz, Spanish for pelican, was named Isla de los Alcatraces after the birds that were the island's only inhabitants. The island served as a military fortification in the 1850s and an incarceration facility for war prisoners during the Spanish-American War. In 1934 Alcatraz became the infamous maximum-security prison for Mafia criminals and high-risk convicts. Famous island residents have included "Machine Gun" Kelly, Al Capone and Robert "Birdman" Stroud.
Although the island is only a mile from shore, there is no evidence of any successful escapes across the icy bay. The prison was the only one in the federal system that touted hot showers-a luxury designed to keep prisoners from acclimating to cold water. A federal penitentiary until 1963, "The Rock" is now a popular tourist attraction. The 12-acre island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is accessible only by Alcatraz Cruises boats which depart daily from Pier 33 near Fisherman's Wharf on the Embarcadero.
From 1969 to 1971, a group of American Indians seized the island as a protest against the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Much of the island was destroyed during this period, but the main block, mess hall and lighthouse remain intact.
NOTE: During peak travel times, reservations must be made well in advance. Advance tickets may be charged to a credit card by phone, (415) 981-7625. Boats depart from Pier 33. Wear comfortable shoes and dress warmly year round. This tour requires hiking and walking up stairs -- individuals with heart or respiratory problems may want to skip this excursion in favor of a bay cruise that passes by the island for photo opportunities.